GSK pumps out big bucks for Flonase OTC launch

Spring has sprung, and so has allergy advertising. Drugmakers blast the airwaves annually as the pollen starts to fly, with the latest sniff and cough relief remedies.

But this year there's a new big spender in the achoo wars--emphasis on "big." GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) spent an estimated $71 million in TV advertising alone for its newly OTC nasal spray Flonase. That's from its launch in February through May 15, according to iSpot, and Flonase TV commercials aired more than 13,000 times during that period. The three-month spend would put Flonase at No. 5 on iSpot's 2014 annual list of top spending brands in Advertising Age.

GSK's total Flonase spend is higher, as the iSpot numbers only include TV ads. Flonase is shelling out in other ad mediums as well, such as radio and in-store marketing. Point of Purchase Online Network called the Flonase in-store marketing effort "enormous"--and the evidence is at retailers such as CVS ($CVS) and Wal-Mart ($WMT), with end caps, shelf talkers and point-of-purchase displays.

Even a mid-launch lawsuit couldn't stem the spending. Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) McNeil unit accused GSK of making unsupported claims about Flonase's advantage over its allergy products. The lawsuit was settled, and in May, GSK debuted a mostly similar, but slightly reworded Flonase TV spot, swapping "outperforms the #1 allergy pill" to "outperforms a leading allergy pill." The new ad is still in heavy rotation, too. From is launch May 11 through May 15, $3.3 million was spent on 751 national airings, according to iSpot.

The campaign also includes social media, with a #BeGreater24 photo contest on Twitter and Instagram, and a sponsored allergy tracker on The Weather Channel's app and web site. iSpot, which also tracks social activity, noted almost 600 social media mentions and 13,000 web searches for Flonase from February through May.

The campaign seems to be working. GSK recently reported an 8% increase in its consumer healthcare division for the first quarter, partly "benefiting from [the] launch of Flonase OTC." It's a key time for GSK's consumer business too, what with its new joint venture in the field with Novartis ($NVS), part of the big asset swap that closed in March.

The allergy segment battle has intensified with the launch of more OTC nasal steroid options like Flonase and Sanofi's ($SNY) Nasacort, along with a field of pill or liquid prescription-to-OTCs including Bayer's Claritin, J&J's Zyrtec and Sanofi's Allegra.

According to market researcher Mintel, sales of cough, cold, flu, and allergy remedies reached almost $8 billion in 2014, which was an increase of 16% between 2009 and 2014. The report attributed the growth not only to the severe flu season in 2012-2013, but also to the OTC launch of Nasacort in 2014, adding that with the launch of Flonase this year, sales growth in the category is expected to continue steady through 2019.

- check out a Flonase commercial

Special Reports: The top 10 advertisers in Big Pharma | Top 15 pharma companies by 2014 revenue - GlaxoSmithKline | Top 10 pharma M&A deals of 2014 - GSK/Novartis